In his recent essay on the demise of the Conservative movement, Daniel Gordis accuses its leaders of strategic errors. He predicts that halakhic young Conservative Jews will permanently leave the movement for Orthodoxy. There they will find the observant community they lack in their home synagogues. He thus implies that adherence to halakha is the sole determining factor in people’s denominational choices. In the short term, defection to Orthodoxy by committed young Conservative Jews is likely. In the long term, it is not. Why not? Gordis barely touches upon a defining aspect of Conservative Judaism—its recognition of the halakhic system’s driving ethical impulse. He issues just one pat statement on the subject, referring to the movement’s elite adopting “principled gender egalitarianism.” I don’t think he understands what matters to American Jews.
Let’s briefly review the history of feminism in the Conservative movement: In the 1970s, a number of women, me among them, gave the movement an opportunity it never had before—to apply its core principle of tradition and change to a noble cause. Rather than seek a relaxing of halakhic standards, as was done in 1950 when congregants wanted permission to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath, feminist women were advocating a new stringency. They wanted the ritual acts of Judaism to obligate all Jews. They wanted women to be required to pray three times daily just like men, count in a prayer quorum just like men, and be given the honor of leading a prayer service, being called to the Torah, and reading from the Torah—just like men. Most of all, they wanted women to have the opportunity to be ordained as rabbis.
The halakhic system emerged at a time, more than 2,000 years ago, when women were subordinate to men and dependent upon them for financial support, physical protection, and social standing. It made sense back then to require heads of household, and no one else, to perform the key rituals. But society has since arrived at the conclusion that women are as fully human as men. When feminist women, who were becoming first-class citizens in their secular lives, asked the rabbinic leadership of the Conservative movement to grant them parity in religious ritual, it acceded to their requests, albeit reluctantly and in piecemeal fashion. What was the outcome of these egalitarian changes? Synagogues found it easier to attract a quorum to the daily minyan and line up Torah readers for Shabbat morning. Rabbinical schools raised the bar of acceptance because they now had twice as many people to choose from. Overall, women infused new energy and excitement into Jewish observance. Returning to the question of committed Conservative youth: Will they feel comfortable in Modern Orthodoxy, to use Yeshivat Chovovei Torah’s term, Open Orthodoxy? In the short term, they will. But as years pass, and as they raise their sons and daughters in their newfound denomination, they will chafe at the restrictions it places on women, and even more at the entrenched view of women as second-class citizens.
To its credit, the advocates of the new Open Orthodoxy are today attempting to bring women into the picture. Woman are being afforded more opportunities for study, religious leadership (as maharats, not as rabbis), and ritual participation. Its partnership minyanim are increasing in number, in the United States, and also in Israel. Learned Open Orthodox women will soon realize that there is no halakhic reason they are denied opportunities for full ritual leadership or rabbinic ordination. They will discover that women were obligated to pray daily, starting with the Mishnah in the 2nd century C.E, and ending with the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century code of Jewish law and practice still in force today. They will discover that halakha has built-in mechanisms for change that were activated time and again, often to save a woman from a recalcitrant divorcing husband. For these reasons, Conservative Jews who defect to Open Orthodoxy will either bring it to full egalitarianism or else return to Conservative Judaism, where intellectual honesty has long been revered and where the result has been change for good reason. Gordis’ analysis of American Jews today is seriously deficient. Ethical behavior matters to the majority.
Editor’s Note: Daniel Gordis replies to his critics and outlines his positive vision for the future.
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